Guest post by Desiree Villena.
FOR A LITTLE OVER A YEAR, I’ve been journaling every day. I don’t always use the time in the same way; sometimes I’ll vent my feelings, plan my goals, or mindlessly philosophize (incredibly embarrassing to read back), other times I’ll structure my day or plan a project. But whatever I do, I try to put pen to paper daily — and it’s incredibly soothing.
Beyond its mental health benefits, journaling is a great way to nurture your creativity. For writers, this “free-from-rules” space can be ideal for jotting down ideas. If you turn to your journal regularly, without pressure, then you can come back to those notes you made in your own time, even if it’s weeks after the idea first came to you.
As a deeply personal retreat, and a sort of ‘album of your life’, a journal is also the perfect place to find and develop your creative voice for a larger life-writing project. There’s no one way to do this — journaling is all about doing whatever feels right for you — but I’d like to share a few of the more unusual tactics I use to improve my writing and keep my journaling creative.
1. Write out of chronological order
Many memoirs choose to eschew strict chronology and open with a story from the middle or even the end of the narrative. This opening incident usually captures the central theme of the memoir in a way that is powerful and vivid, engaging the reader right out of the gates.
To practice this technique, try writing about your day out of chronological order. I warn you, this is final boss-level journaling and isn’t the tactic to wind down with before bed. Not least because you’ll need to know how to plan your writing before you begin, and then you’ll have to take the time to plot an outline (freewriting journalers, have I lost you there?). But if you’re in the mood for a creative challenge, this is a great activity to learn about the art of structure.
It goes without saying that reverse-chronology and plot twists are a match made in heaven. The audience is led to believe one thing based on where a character ends up, but the scenes that follow reveal something else entirely as they gradually wind back time. Of course, your day-to-day life probably isn’t as thrilling as All the Missing Girls or as tense as Everything I Never Told You; but if something surprising happens, this is the perfect challenge.
2. Have a fictional character live out your day
Writing in profound detail about a sliver of your day — the view from your window, the way something made you feel, the stranger you bumped into — is perhaps the purest form of journaling, dating way back to that diary you wrote in second grade. But if you’re already well-versed in how to write nonfiction, why not add a creative, fictional twist to your journaling?
One of my favorite tactics is to write about a fragment of my day from the perspective of an existing fictional character. This is a really low-pressure exercise because the author has already done the hard work of fleshing out the character. All you have to do is slip into their shoes and revisit your day.
The more like-minded you are, the easier this challenge will be. Or if you want to play in hard-mode, you could choose a character from speculative fiction and maybe even translate your day into their world. Either way, I would suggest choosing someone from a recent read, so all the details are fresh in your mind.
Hopefully, this tactic will help you to look at your life-writing project as a form of narrative storytelling, rather than a laundry-list of events. I find that it works especially well if I try to mimic the novelist’s style. And you never know, you may be inspired to improve your writing with some of their stylistic handiwork.
3. Write a few hundred words of dialogue
When writing a memoir, some authors feel inclined to steer away from direct speech because they can’t recall with total certainty what was said. But you’ll find that lots of the very best memoirs use direct speech as much as possible. Your dialogue doesn’t need to be 100% accurate — it just needs to capture the personality of the speaker and the essence of what was said.
Writing dialogue inspired by my real life is one of my favorite ways to practice this. If at some point in your day you wanted to say something to a friend or initiate a conversation with a stranger, but you didn’t have the courage, then put it to paper and use your imagination to see where things go. If a conversation you had didn’t go the way you wanted it to, then write it your way. Or just recall a bit of banter, then throw in a point of contention and see where that leads the conversation.
Penning conversation is a fantastic way to better get to know the people in your life and how they appear on the page. It will make you think more deeply about their personalities, opinions, and how they express themselves, as well as what they may outwardly conceal. It’s also an excellent exercise for when you’re pressed for time, as I tend to find that when I write faster, without overthinking, the dialogue sounds much more natural.
4. Conduct an interview… with yourself
Everybody knows that when you’re writing fiction, you need to get under the skin of your protagonist: turn them inside out and find the events that shaped them. But when the protagonist is you, and you’re writing about your own life, it’s easy to think you know all there is to know. In fact, it’s crucial that you dig deep beneath your surface if you want your life-writing to feel personal.
When I’ve had a particularly uneventful day, I like to turn on my brightest spotlight and ask myself a few probing questions. Do you remember the New York Times 36 questions that lead to love? Well, I find they make very fruitful prompts for journaling. A couple of my personal favorites have been: Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?, and What would constitute a “perfect” day to you — but there are plenty to choose from.
You could delve into the depths of your past by answering a question about your childhood (though more on that next!), or you might choose a question like this, “Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it.”, and get some extra dialogue practice in.
5. Bring a photograph to life
If you’re writing a memoir and your sense of self is a little blurred around the edges, you might want to take a moment to reacquaint yourself with your past. It’s true that memoirs are selective with their timelines — they won’t start with the author’s birth, for example, unless it was particularly dramatic or involved suckling wolves. But using your journal to recall events outside of your memoir’s narrative will help you write from a more informed and rounded perspective.
Photographs have an unmatched ability to unearth buried memories, so occasionally I’ll flick through my photo albums and write about any picture that sparks a reaction. Don’t write with the goal of including it in a project, but do try to pick a snapshot that bears significance on the experience or theme that you’re exploring. For example, if you were writing a memoir about struggling to finish your first novel, you might choose a moment in your life that made you want to become a writer.
Putting the events of your memoir into context — even if only in your mind — will help you to convey your motivations and the layers of your personality to readers, so that they can really connect with your creative voice.
I hope these five unusual tactics (perfect for creative journaling!) will help you connect with your creative voice, too — so that you can improve your life-writing and perfect your project (maybe even to share with others), or just keep your daily journaling fresh and exciting.
Please share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences in the comments section below.